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When to use subject pronouns in Spanish?

By: Mango Languages Fri Dec 22 2023
Spanish
Pronouns

A subject pronoun like yo ("I") or nosotros ("we") is a word that takes the place of one or more nouns, and carries out the action expressed by the verb. Subject pronouns are generally, but not always, dropped in Spanish since the verb endings tell us “who” or “what” the subject is.

However, there are cases in which the subject pronouns can’t be dropped. Do you want to know about these cases? We have the answers for you next!

Table of Contents

    What’s a subject pronoun?

    A subject pronoun is a word used as the subject of a verb in place of one or more nouns that have already been mentioned. The subject performs the action described by the verb.

    For instance, take the following sentences:

    Juan se levanta temprano.

    Juan gets up early.

    Juan toma el autobús todos los días.

    Juan takes the bus every day.

    The subject of both sentences is Juan. He’s the person doing the actions described in both verbs: Juan is the person getting up early and taking the bus every day.

    In order to not repeat the subject, we may use a pronoun to stand for it. In this case, the Spanish subject pronoun for a male is él ("he"). Therefore, the previous sentences can be rewritten like this:

    Juan se levanta temprano.

    Juan gets up early.

    Él toma el autobús todos los días.

    He takes the bus every day.

    ⤷ Remember that the verb conjugation always matches the subject.

    However, subject pronouns in Spanish are normally omitted. Verbal endings usually make clear what or who the subject is without a subject pronoun. Therefore, the previous sentences would be best rewritten by omitting the subject pronoun:

    Juan se levanta temprano.

    Juan gets up early.

    Toma el autobús todos los días.

    He takes the bus every day.

    In some cases, the subject pronoun has to be present. Keep reading to know when subject pronouns are necessary. But first, let’s go over what the subject pronouns are in Spanish.

    What are the subject pronouns in Spanish?

    Here’s a list of pronouns used as subjects:

    Pronoun
    Equivalent in English
    Example
    Translation
    yo

    I

    Yo estudio inglés.

    I study English.

    you (singular, informal)

    Tú cantas bien.

    You sing well.

    vos

    you (singular, informal)

    Vos cantás bien.

    You sing well.

    usted

    you (singular, formal)

    ¿Viene usted?

    Are you (sir or madam) coming?

    él

    he

    Él va a la universidad.

    He goes to college.

    ella

    she

    Ella es doctora.

    She’s a doctor.

    nosotros

    we

    Nosotros no participamos.

    We don’t participate.

    nosotras

    we

    Nosotras no fuimos.

    It’s not our fault.

    vosotros

    you (plural, informal)

    ¿Vosotros vais a viajar este año?

    Are you guys traveling this year?

    vosotras

    you (plural, informal)

    Vosotras salís mucho.

    You guys go out too much.

    ustedes

    you (plural, formal and informal)

    A ustedes no les interesa.

    It’s none of your business.

    ellos

    they

    Ellos llegaron tarde.

    They were late.

    ellas

    they

    Ellas ya terminaron.

    They are already finished.

    You might be wondering, how come we have three pronouns for “you (singular)” and three pronouns for “you (plural)”? Have you ever heard of vos? And, where’s the equivalent of “it”? Find out next!

    'Tú’ vs. ‘usted’

    Spanish has three pronouns for singular “you”: , usted, and vos. Let’s explore the first two.

    and usted (abbreviated as Ud.) vary in formality:

    • is less formal than usted. Its use varies from one Spanish variety to the next, but it’s safe to generalize that is used to address anyone your age or younger:

      Hola, Juan, ¿cómo estás (tú)?

      Hi Juan, how are you?

    • Usted is more formal than . It’s used to address anyone older than you and/or someone you want to show respect. It’s also safe to assume that usted is the pronoun of choice for anyone you'd address with a title (doctors, professors, etc.):

      Doctor Martínez, ¿cómo está usted?

      Dr. Martínez, how are you?

    Did you know?

    In Costa Rica and other Central American countries, Colombia, and Chile, they use usted informally with family members, spouses, and even friends!

    To make things even more interesting, Spanish has a third pronoun for you-singular, namely pronoun vos. Let's go over what this pronoun is all about!

    ‘Vos’

    This pronoun is used instead of, or alongside, in several American regions. Its use and acceptance vary from region to region:

    • In Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, vos is generally accepted and is used instead of .

    • In Central America, vos is used alongside .

    • In parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile, and Southern Mexico,vos is generally accepted and is used alongside .

    Important

    Unlike , vos does not change its form whether it's used as a subject pronoun or as the object of a preposition:

    • Vos no tenés coche. / no tienes coche.

      You don’t have a car.

    • Este regalo es para vos. / Este regalo es para ti.

      This present is for you.

    To learn how to conjugate verbs using the vos form, head over to: “How to use the pronoun ‘vos’ in Spanish?”

    ‘Ustedes’ vs. ‘vosotros’ and ‘vosotras’

    Ustedes ("you-plural") (abbreviated Uds.) is used in all varieties of Spanish. However, its use is more restricted in Spain.

    • In Latin American Spanish, ustedes is the only form for the plural "you." It’s used in both formal and informal contexts as it’s the plural of , vos, and usted:

      • Hola, chicos, ¿cómo están (ustedes)?

        Hi guys, how are you?

      • Hola, Dr. Martínez y Dra. Pérez, ¿cómo están (ustedes)?

        Hello, Dr. Martínez and Dr. Pérez, how are you?

    • In the Spanish spoken in Spain, ustedes is just the plural of usted. Therefore, ustedes is only used in formal contexts similar to the ones listed above:

      Hola, Dr. Martínez y Dra. Pérez, ¿cómo están (ustedes)?

      Hello, Dr. Martínez and Dr. Pérez, how are you?

      So, what's the plural of in Spain? The answer is vosotros and vosotras:

      Hola, chicos, ¿cómo estáis (vosotros or vosotras)?
      Hi guys, how are you?

    Here’s a summary of all the forms of “you” in Spanish:

    Formality
    Latin American varieties
    Spain varieties
    Singular
    Plural
    Singular
    Plural
    Informal
    tú, vos
    ustedes
    vosotros, vosotras
    Formal
    usted
    usted
    ustedes

    ‘Ellos, ellas’ and ‘nosotros, nosotras’

    The only difference between ellos and ellas, and nosotros and nosotras, is the gender of the nouns they stand for. The same difference applies to vosotros and vosotras.

    Ellos, ellas, and nosotros refer, by default, to a group of all males or a group of males and females. Ellas, vosotras, nosotras refer to a group of all females.

    For instance:

    • Ellas ya terminaron.

      They are already finished.

      We know the pronoun refers only to females.
    • Nosotros no participamos.

      We don't participate.

      We don’t know whether the pronoun refers only to males, or males and females.
    Important

    Some people believe the fact that the masculine form is used to refer to a group composed of both male and female individuals is considered non-inclusive. For this reason, some alternatives are being used:

    • Add both pronouns when describing a group ellos y ellas ("they (males) and they (females)"), nosotros y nosotras ("We (males) and we (females)).")

    • Another solution that has gained popularity lately is to use the feminine pronouns, replacing the masculine ones to refer to a group of mixed-sex individuals: Nosotras queremos igualdad. ("We (males and females) want equality.")

    • Non-standard gender-neutral pronouns are also becoming popular. For instance, some gender-neutral ways to say “they'' are: elles, ell@s, and ellxs.

    How do you say "it" in Spanish?

    There is no subject pronoun equivalent to the English “it.” Potential candidates such as él and ella only refer to people, they never refer to things. What’s the solution? We simply don’t use pronouns in instances where we would use the subject pronoun “it” in English.

    La camisa es de algodón. Es azul.

    The shirt is made out of cotton. It’s blue.

    Similarly, there’s no equivalent to the English “they,” when referring to non-humans:

    Estas computadoras fallan mucho. Cuestan mucho dinero.

    These computers fail a lot. They cost a lot of money.

    When is it necessary to use subject pronouns in Spanish?

    As we just mentioned, subject pronouns are normally absent in Spanish. However, there are a few cases in which the subject pronoun has to be present:

    Focus

    The subject pronoun is used when the subject is the focus.

    Compare these two dialogues:

    • – ¿Cuántos años tienes?
      – (yo) Tengo veinte años.
      – How old are you?
      – I’m twenty years old.
    • – ¿Quién ha hecho esto?
      – He sido yo.
      – Who did this?
      – I did it.

    The focus of the first dialogue is not the subject, but the object of the verb (the number of years). Therefore, the subject pronoun can be omitted since the verb ending makes it clear. However, the focus of the second dialogue is the subject (who did something). Thus, to emphasize who the subject is, the pronoun is present.

    Important

    When the subject pronoun is present, its normal position is before the verb at the beginning of a sentence. However, notice how when the subject is the focus, the subject pronoun yo is placed after the verb at the end of the sentence. The reason for this is to emphasize even more that the subject is the focus of the sentence.

    Contrast

    The subject pronoun is present to mark the contrast between two different subjects, just like in English you would say “I” and “you” with emphasis:

    Yo cocino y limpias.

    I cook and you clean.

    Change of subject

    We use subject pronouns when we change from one subject to another:

    Juan y María llegaron tarde. Él se duchó y se fue a la cama. Ella hizo unas llamadas y salió.

    Juan and María arrived late. He took a shower and went to bed. She made a few phone calls and left.

    Use of ‘usted’

    The use of usted ("you-formal") adds extra courtesy and formality.

    • ¿Desea algo más?

      Would you like anything else?

    • ¿Desea usted algo más?

      Would you like anything else?

    The second sentence, which has a subject pronoun, conveys more formality than the first one, which omits usted.

    Subject pronouns in Caribbean Spanish

    Contrary to the rest of Spanish varieties, in the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and parts of Venezuela and Colombia), subject pronouns are expressed in the following contexts:

    • In sentences that do not contrast between different subjects.

      • In Caribbean Spanish, a sentence like the following example is correct, despite the repetition of the subject:

        Yo terminé de estudiar, yo me fui al salón y yo lo llamé por teléfono.

        I finished studying, I went to the living room, and I phoned him.

      • The rest of the Spanish varieties avoid repetition of the same subject:

        Yo terminé de estudiar, me fui al salón y lo llamé por teléfono.

        I finished studying, went to the living room, and phoned him.

    • In interrogative sentences where the subject is not the focus.

      • For instance, a question like ¿Qué quieres? ("What do you want?") is correct despite the fact that the subject is not the focus of the question (the focus is the “what someone wants” and not the “who wants something”). Notice how the subject pronoun goes before the verb. This is particular to Caribbean Spanish.

      • In the rest of the Spanish varieties, the previous question would be uttered or written without the pronoun: ¿Qué quieres? ("What do you want?"). In case the subject pronoun were needed, it would go after the verb: ¿Qué quieres ? ("What do you want?").

    So far, we have considered sentences that have subject pronouns. However, Spanish has sentences without a specific subject. They are called impersonal sentences. Let’s see those next.

    Which kind of subject pronouns do we use in impersonal sentences?

    Impersonal sentences are those with no specific subject. They correspond to the English passive voice or impersonal subjects such as “they,” “you,” “people,” or “one.”

    The passive voice exists in Spanish. However, its use is disfavored as it’s considered more formal. To avoid the use of the passive voice and to deal with impersonal sentences, Spanish uses the following strategies:

    • The ellos, ellas, usted form of a verb, but without the subject pronoun

    • La gente ("people")
    • Uno ("one")

    For instance, to express the fact that Spanish is spoken in Miami, one could say:

    • En Miami se habla español.
    • En Miami hablan español.
    • En Miami la gente habla español.
    • En Miami uno habla español.

    Summary

    Subject pronouns are words used in place of nouns that carry out the action of the verb. Spanish subject pronouns are very often omitted because the verb endings are usually enough to determine who/what the subject is, without the need to pronounce or write it. However, there are some cases in which subject pronouns have to be present: contrast, focus, change of subject, and extra formality with usted. Finally, don’t forget that Caribbean Spanish keeps subject pronouns in more contexts than the rest of the Spanish varieties.

    Ready to practice? Check out this Spanish subject pronoun activity that we created for you.

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    When to use subject pronouns in Spanish~Activities

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